Steven Church on Ultrasonic and the
"State of Not-Knowing"
teven Church’s new book, Ultrasonic, is a collection of linked essays that use sound as an entry point for exploring connections and meanings obscured beneath the noise of everyday life. Church’s topics include trapped miners, stethoscopes, racquetball, language, loitering, violence, Elvis, and the music of torture, and the book weaves the narrative and thematic threads of these topics into a collage-like tapestry. In the following conversation Church discusses the result of deciding to use sound as a theme, the value of writing and reading in a state of not-knowing, and the use of contraints in his own work and in the work of writers he admires.
Propeller: When and how did you become aware that you wanted to use sound as an organizing principle and/or thematic thread in this collection?
Steven Church: A lot of this book began with my trying to write about the unique sonic experience of playing racquetball, which, I realize, sounds a little strange. But the game is loud and noisy and musical in aesthetically interesting ways. So the title essay, “Ultrasonic,” was sort of like the mother-ship from which many of the other pieces were spawned. I knew pretty early on that I had a few essays that were all “sound centered” pieces—ones that were exploring sound as a sensory detail, subject, and form. But it was probably the focus on sound as form, particularly the literal and metaphorical meaning of echolocation, that opened the book up a bit more, allowing me to “bounce” off of other subjects or solid objects or ideas as I was navigating in the dark.
Propeller: What kind of problems came up for you as a writer as a result of that decision?
Church: Honestly, I’m not sure how much of it was a conscious decision and how much was the product of trial and error, the end result of trying and failing other organizing principles. For a while I tried to hammer the book into a more unified “memoir,” where the individual essays were broken up into pieces and spread throughout the book, where I was trying to create an overarching “fatherhood” thread as the primary organizing principle. I probably spent a good year trying to make that memoir book and it was mostly just a lot of spinning my wheels. All I did was ruin the pieces as individual essays. All that effort to make a more “marketable” book just sucked the life and originality out of the whole thing. So when I finally gave myself permission to just write a collection of odd digressive essays, pieces that I love dearly as essays, it was enormously satisfying—like finding the piece of the puzzle that somehow suggests the completion of a larger image. It did, however, also mean that I wrote some things that ultimately didn’t fit into this book. I have a long strange essay about Mike Tyson, Blue Velvet, and severed ears that I originally thought was part of this book, probably because of the focus on ears, but that eventually spun off on its own into another book project.
Propeller: But as you say there, by giving yourself permission to write these “digressive” pieces, you probably opened up the possibility for writing pieces you wouldn’t have written other wise, right? Are there particular pieces in the book that you see as only being possible because you gave yourself this permission?
Church: Probably most of the book...I mean, a couple of these pieces were conceived and born independent of this larger investigation into sound, but a lot of them came directly out of the stuff I was doing with language and the idea of “seeing through sound.” An essay like, “Seven Fathoms Down,” for instance, began with a conversation among friends at a local bar and my use of the colloquialism, “warms my cockles,” and having a friend basically say, “What the hell did you just say?” at which point I, shocked that nobody had heard it before, looked up the origin of the phrase on my phone. I was pretty quickly spun off into all sorts of directions for research and investigation; and I think the idea of echolocation as a way to move through an essay or a book gave me permission to go off into a variety of subjects, even pulling in past history of my hometown, which then led me into more research on the uniquely strange creature, the catfish, which isn’t really a fish in the traditional sense, but more like a shark or a freshwater mammal or some strange liminal being...and then spinning further, bouncing off into the physicality of language, the bodily definition of a “fathom,” a word we’ve all heard before, both as measurement of depth and as measurement of understanding, but perhaps one we haven’t thought much about. I don’t know when I realized that the essay was probably, on some level, at least partly connected to my witnessing of a drowning at a reservoir in Colorado, but that was never really the “subject” of the essay in my mind.
Propeller: Could you say a little more about what you mean when you say “that was never really the ‘subject’ of the essay”? I suspect this is an important distinction for you, because in your summary of that essay the most dramatic event is obviously witnessing a drowning. Maybe another way of asking this is just to ask what you feel the difference is between the most dramatic event and the subject of the essay?
Church: That’s a great question. In this essay, at least, the subject is language, the physicality of it, and the act of taking a sounding, or measuring the depth of a body (human body, body of water); but the subject is also thought, and the way we “dredge things” up from the past, or the way certain dramatic events surface from the depths again and again, rising into our present awareness. So the dramatic event, the drowning, is almost like a corroborating example, a kind of supporting claim for my thinking on the subject. This is probably also another case of an essay where I’m sort of rebelling against the age-old wisdom that an essay has to tell the reader right up front “what’s at stake” or explain why, emotionally, this should “matter” to them; because ultimately I’m not sure that’s how we think or interact with the world. And if an essay is like a conversation with your reader, I’m not sure the foregrounding of emotion is always the best conversational or essayistic strategy. I don’t go around, for example, confessing to someone I’ve just met all the trauma and loss I’ve experienced in my life, but I might get around to mentioning some of it if we can have a really engaging, thought-provoking conversation about some other stuff that eventually drifts into a consideration of larger ideas connected to such loss and trauma.
Another way to answer the question would be to say that a “dramatic event” is largely a product of plot or character-driven narrative technique designed to create dramatic tension or suspense; of course a great many excellent essays partake in such strategies, and though I’ve written such essays, this is not how the pieces in Ultrasonic wanted to behave. They regularly resisted the narrative push toward arc or crisis or even toward a clear dramatic event as subject, instead operating much more associatively, where a dramatic event becomes yet another stop in an echolocation through the dark, only briefly illuminated and somewhat illusory in its meaning.
Propeller: In “Crown and Shoulder” you write about your brother’s death, but within a consideration of the language we use to describe heads and roads. Did working toward writing about that loss via a consideration of language give you thoughts about it you hadn’t had before, or allow you an entry into that grief that offered a new perspective for you, personally?
Church: Yes, absolutely. That essay, more than perhaps any other in the book, was one defined the surprise of discovering something that had been there all along—as if I’d tunneled into the chamber containing my brother’s death from a different direction. It started with me trying to write about a series of head and shoulder injuries, but that was mind-numbingly boring to read. So I have myself some handcuffs or constraints, where I had to write within some fairly narrow parameters—“crown” or “shoulder” every time—but I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that these not only gave me a starting point each time but also a kind of challenge to think of all the different meanings of these two words. Once I started doing that, I got into research on various meanings of the words (dictionary definitions, etymologies, usage history, and personal usage history), and pretty soon it started pulling in other things from my past and present; but when my brother’s death showed up on the page, or when I realized that it had to show up, it was honestly a surprise to me. I didn’t expect it, but it was satisfying to approach that subject from a different angle, to see it through a new lens. It provided, I suppose, a kind of intellectual and emotional catharsis.
Propeller: Is that strategy of giving yourself constraints one you’ve used in the past, or something you did more often in this book? And are there other essayists, or I guess writers of any kind, really, whose use of constraints has particularly interested you?
Church: If we think of constraints as a kind of assignment I give myself, then yes, I’ve used them often in the past. In fact, most of my books began with me giving myself some kind of writing assignment, something to give me a direction or a starting point when I sat down to write. My first book, The Guinness Book of Me, started with me sitting down and just writing out some imagined, mostly fictional lives for the Guinness World Record holders, trying to answer the question, “Why?” behind a given record, or trying to understand the impact of a record on one’s life. Really it was just a way to have fun writing and to give myself something to do. Much of Ultrasonic was written with similar constraints or assignments. In fact, the whole thing started with the title essay, “Ultrasonic,” which was written within the constraints of “blue” and “noise.” “Seven Fathoms” started with me trying to write about the idiomatic phrase, “warms my cockles” and the words, “sounding” and “fathom.” I’ve always been interested in form in the essay and how writers work both inside and outside of a particular form, as well as when a form begins to break down or fail. It’s often in these failures, these tensions between form and content, where the most compelling tension exists.
Ander Monson writes and talks about this a lot and his book Vanishing Point is an interesting exploration of how the page and the book as object work as constraints as well as new opportunities for writing. I also dearly love Lia Purpura’s essays, many of which meditate on the meaning of some small object, word, or idea. In her most recent book, Rough Likeness, for example, she writes beautifully about the word, “gunmetal,” and all the ways it has meaning. And this semester in my Experimental Literature class we read and studied Michael Martone’s The Blue Guide to Indiana, a fictionalized “guide book” to the state that works under the constraint of guide-book form and style. For their midterms, my students all wrote their own entries for a Blue Guide to Fresno and the Central Valley of California, and then we published them on a blog site. We had a lot of fun with that project thinking about the fundamental tension that exists in great satire, the state of not-knowing that exists in the best forms of it, and how we might apply it to this place where we live.
Propeller: Wait—you used a term there that interests me but that I’m not sure I understand. Could you say more about what you mean by “the state of not-knowing”?
Church: I guess I’m talking about that tension in a truly great piece of satire, or perhaps in any writing that risks putting the reader in a state of confusion or of not knowing what exactly he is reading or how he’s supposed to react to and engage with it. In Martone’s The Blue Guide to Indiana, for example, though we know up front that the entries are fictionalized (to some degree), some of them still sound true or at least believable. Some of this tension is a function of the parody at work in the book and the aping of stylistic and formal elements of guide books. And though I’m not writing satire or really what I’d consider to be terribly experimental essays in Ultrasonic, I guess I am at times risking putting the reader in a state of not knowing. I’m okay with a reader being a bit lost, or engaged with an essay as if it is a puzzle, initially (or even ultimately) confused as to how everything fits together, because I feel like such states of confusion force a reader to let go and be open to new experiences of meaning, new states of knowledge and awareness. It also foregrounds voice and form, style and language, over things like plot, characters, and setting.
Propeller: The book includes a section with “Notes on Process and Sources,” in which you discuss the process you went through in writing many of the essays. Did you know you wanted to include that kind of reflective, explanatory material from the beginning, or did your decision to compose that section emerge later?
Church: For whatever reason, I had written a lot of that stuff before, for various venues, either as interviews or as “papers” given at conferences, and I suppose that’s because I had both the opportunity to write about my ideas on nonfiction writing and the interest. Since I’d tried and failed to turn the book into something more like a unified memoir, I’d been forced to be very intentional about the form and process of the book as a collection of essays. I also really enjoyed reading Eula Biss’s process notes at the end of her magnificent book of essays, Notes from No Man’s Land, and wanted to do something similar. I’ve also been lucky enough to have the first essay in the book, “Auscultation,” adopted by several high schools and school districts around the country, and I wanted to have something in the book that might appeal to teachers and students. But the short answer is that the decision to include those came much later, after the book had been accepted by Lavender Ink, and in consultation with my publisher, and as a result, I wrote much of it for the final drafts of the book.
Propeller: Earlier in this conversation you mentioned how you wanted to rebel against the typical use of “dramatic events” to create dramatic tension or suspense. I also admired your narrative voice in the book, especially the way in which you don’t bother creating narrative authority through the typical voice moves, which in our culture are usually British-isms like use of impersonal third-person (something like, When one considers the term ‘fathom,’ one cannot help but…) or the crafting of sentences that carry an elevated written style but would be hard to imagine a contemporary speaker actually saying in a natural way. Has your written voice evolved over your years as a writer? If so, how?
Church: I really hope my voice has evolved over the years. I know I’ve made efforts to develop it and to try different forms and styles of writing. Though I’d say the essays in Ultrasonic are pretty characteristic of my writing style and voice, I’m also working on a more journalistic project focused on Parkfield, California (pop. 18), the Earthquake Capital of the World, that requires a different sort of narrative stance and voice, one that allows others to speak and have their own voice on the page; and it’s often a challenge to balance my more essayistic tendencies and voice with the more narrative demands of immersion journalism.
Early on in my career, I was also pretty distrustful of my “reflective voice,” finding that it often ended up bloated and impersonal, full of redundancies, and I wrote a lot of my early work in what I thought of as a “reflective present tense,” or a highly stylized present tense voice, designed to increase immediacy and tension without the distance of a past-tense voice, and I’ve since moved away from that somewhat, trusting my reflective voice a bit more. I guess I’ve tried to pay attention to other writers—both minimalist and maximalist—and how they craft sentences filled with tension in every word. Though I wouldn’t say this all the time, this is also perhaps a case where my job as a professor in an MFA program and an Editor for The Normal School has helped my writing voice develop over the years. Because I spend so much time line-editing student work and reading submission after submission, I find that what grabs me is almost always voice—that alchemy of narrative stance, point of view, and attention to language that is sometimes hard to pin down. After a while of teaching and editing, you’ve sort of seen all the “subjects” (not true, but it feels that way), all the “dramatic events,” so I find that I’m increasingly interested in the more ineffable qualities of writing. I’m rarely shocked or surprised at subject matter or plot, but I’m regularly gobsmacked by the way a particular consciousness melds with language to create a uniquely compelling voice on the page. Or as I put it more bluntly to my students sometimes, “Just because it happened to you, doesn’t make it interesting.” Though I think it wise and probably necessary to live a life of curiosity and wonder, a life filled with novel and interesting experiences, such a life doesn’t earn you any credit with the blank page.
Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, the new essay collection Ultrasonic (Lavender Ink), and a forthcoming book, Jumping Into the Cage: Encounters with the Savage and the Sublime (Dzanc Books). He is a Founding Editor and Nonfiction Editor for the nationally recognized literary magazine The Normal School, and teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.